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Rise Up and Take Note

My sermon in honor of Martin Luther King Jr Day. Discrimination is real. Racism in America is a pervasive force. What are we to do? We must rise up and take note!


This weekend we mark Martin Luther King Jr Day and so I wish to reflect on the lessons we can, and should, draw from Reverend King’s example. He fought, and died, so that African Americans might achieve equal rights in this nation that promises equal rights for all. That struggle continues. The promise remains unfulfilled.

A few years ago, I travelled with a number of rabbis to Montgomery, Alabama to visit the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. This remarkable, and stirring, museum was inspired by Bryan Stevenson who founded the Equal Justice Initiative that fights for those who are wrongly incarcerated. Among its more startling exhibits are soil remains from sites where Blacks were lynched and terrorized. There were photographs on the museum walls showing how snacks were distributed to those who attended these lynchings. Children were brought by parents to these hangings as if these acts of terror constituted proper entertainment. Such lynchings occurred in our country into the 1950’s.

As one leaves the museum and memorial, one confronts rows of copper metal slabs with the names of Southern towns etched on their surface. These are where such horrors occurred. These bear witness to the locations of past lynchings. A sign indicates the purpose and intention of these rows and rows of slabs. They are for the towns to claim and erect in their squares. Then they might confront their past. Only by acknowledging past wrongs can we build the better future that Martin Luther King dreamed about. None of these has yet to be claimed. Bryan Stevenson remarked, “I’m not interested in talking about America’s history because I want to punish America. I want to liberate America.”

We have much work to be done. Our nation can do better. It must do better. The fight against injustice continues. It did not end when Martin Luther King gave his famous “I Have a Dream Speech.” It did not end when George Floyd was killed and many of us first started talking about the racial inequalities that undergird American society. The struggle did not begin in those moments. We became aware of the struggle. To be honest, most of us, including myself, have not even entered this struggle. It was something we were engaged with a few years ago but have by and large moved on from. The struggle continues. And so, on this Martin Luther King Jr Day I wish to reflect on our role in this ongoing struggle. Discrimination is real. Racism in America is a pervasive force. What are we to do?

My seventh graders tackled this question last night when we discussed Martin Luther King’s legacy. We spoke about what he was fighting for. I then asked them if they would be willing to get arrested like King did. They said, “No.” I was of course glad that was their answer, and I affirmed their commitments. I wonder. If we are not willing to get arrested, if we are not willing to take up the call of civil disobedience what can we do? As always, I turned to the Torah for some answers. Let us look to the Torah. This week we begin the Book of Exodus which tells many familiar stories. There are in fact several telling examples from this week’s portion. They point us in the direction of how we might begin to fight injustices.

The first example is that of the Hebrew midwives, Shifrah and Puah, who disobeyed Pharaoh’s edict to kill the Hebrew baby boys. Theirs is the first example of civil disobedience. They do not thunder like Reverend King about how wrong and immoral Pharaoh’s laws are. Instead, they simply disobey. They offer contrived excuses to Pharaoh when he confronts them. They say, “Before the midwife can come to the Hebrew women, they have given birth.” Why do they do this? The Torah explains why. They fear God. They fear, and revere, what you are supposed to. They look not to Pharaoh but instead to God. They do what is right. They save the children.

There are countless examples of people doing such acts throughout the world’s tortured history. In fact, the most common denominator among those who were righteous gentiles and saved Jews during the Holocaust was that they were simple, pious people. They were the ordinary folk and the ordinary heroes. It was not always the prophets who thundered about injustices. More often than not it was people such as Shifrah and Puah who just did the right thing and saved one soul.

The second is a counter example. When young Moses leaves the palace, he sees an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave. What does he do? He kills the taskmaster. Although his righteous anger is justified, his actions cannot serve as an example for us. We are not Moses.

We cannot, and must not, take the law into our own hands and most especially try to mete out punishment—however deserving it may be. That is for the courts—however imperfect they be. And that is for God—however mysterious God’s actions might appear.

Moses then runs from Egypt and makes his way to Midian. And there he defends seven women and offers us a third and oftentimes overlooked example. These women were being accosted by local shepherds who prevented them from drawing the water from the well. The Torah states: “Moses rose up and saved them, and he watered their flock.” This points us to an important character trait that we must foster if we are to stand up against injustice. That is rising up. Vayakom! Stand up. Take notice of when others are being hurt—or as my seventh graders suggested, stand up against bullying. Do something. It can be a simple as making sure these women had enough water to defending a friend, or a stranger, against hurtful words.

And this brings me to the Torah’s final example and the last bit of advice for this weekend’s sacred day. When Pharaoh proclaims that Hebrew boys must be drown in the Nile, Moses’ mother and sister wrap him in a basket after they realize they can hide him no longer. There he is found by none other than Pharaoh’s own daughter. When she discovers the child, she says the most remarkable of things. She opens the basket and states, “This must be a Hebrew child.” And since you have seen the movies, and read the book, you know what happens next. She then raises this baby as her own. The Torah makes explicit what we surmise. It states, “She takes pity on the child.” She does so even though knowing full well that it is contrary to her father’s rulings. She saves this slave child. She ensures that the Torah’s story is a story about salvation. It does begin with the saving of one soul.

Moreover, Pharaoh’s daughter is the one who names the hero of our entire Torah. She calls him, Moses, meaning he was drawn out of the water. Have you ever reflected on this? We read the Five Books of Moses. Moses is named by the daughter of the chief villain of our tale. And we never learn the name of Pharaoh’s daughter. She is our unnamed savior! And she is the person who ensures our redemption from Egypt.

Bryan Stevenson argues that the answer to injustices is that we must get proximate. He does not mean that we have to get near the problem, but instead that we have to get near the person. We have to take note of the person who is wronged or who is suffering. We have to take note like Pharaoh’s daughter did. She opened the basket and looked inside! We must draw near. We have to stand up like Moses did.

We can travel through our beloved Long Island pretending that such injustices do not exist. Or we can stand up and take note. We can think our homes small as we peruse the paper’s real estate section and say we don’t live in palace like Pharaoh’s daughter so how can her example apply to us? Or we can realize that our homes, and our privileges, and our luxuries, are far more than what billions of people throughout the world, and the millions in our nation, have and therefore take a cue from this unnamed princess. Rather than raise our voices, we can quietly help others.

Rise up. Take note. There is at least one soul that we can save. And even though your name might likewise remain unrecorded the book that soul writes might very well change the world.

May we find the strength to rise up and take note.